Music Notes – June 2010

Gil Scott-Heron cancels Israel concert

African-American poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron, 61, joined the growing list of artists who will not perform in apartheid Israel, when he cancelled a May 25 concert in Tel Aviv. Scott-Heron made the announcement April 24 at London’s Royal Albert Hall after being confronted by picketing fans and pressured by an open letter from the international boycott campaign. A prominent member of Artists Against Apartheid in the 1980s, Scott-Heron declared that he would not play in Israel “until everyone can.” He recently returned to form with his acclaimed 2010 album “I’m New Here” after being distracted for more more than a decade by personal  problems.  Scott-Heron joins other notable musicians boycotting Israel, including Sting, Carlos Santana and Brian Eno.

M.I.A.’s “Born Free” too much for YouTube

U.K. hip-hop artist M.I.A. has released a controversial video to go with her new single “Born Free.” To say that it expresses discontent with the “War on Terror” is to put it mildly. Daughter of a militant in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers secessionist movement, M.I.A. charges that country’s victorious Buddhist majority with perpetrating genocide against the Tamil minority since it defeated its long-time foe last year. YouTube pulled the video on April 27 claiming that scenes of nudity and graphic violence violated its rules. It depicts a heavily-armed SWAT team, complete with U.S. insignia, raiding an apartment block and rounding up young red-headed boys. They are taken to an abandoned area where one is executed on the spot and the rest are made to run through a mine field. The disturbing work will mean many things to many people. M.I.A. is unlikely to be hurt by the ban. Anyone can see it at her website: www.miauk.com.

The Chieftans’ American history lesson

The Chieftans’ new album San Patricio tells the story of Irish solders who deserted from the U.S. army during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. The Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought with distinction on the Mexican side. Irish immigrants were discriminated against in 19th-century America, and with a history of resistance to British imperialism it is no surprise that they sympathised with the Mexican people. While the San Patricios are honoured in Mexico and Ireland, their story was suppressed in the U.S. for many years. Coming at a time of rising struggle in North America for immigrant rights this deeply anti-racist album challenges the dominant narrative of American history. San Patricio is co-produced by American guitarist-folklorist Ry Cooder (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) and features a stellar cast of Mexican and Mexican-American musicians.

Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez plays Carnegie Hall

While the Obama administration shows little sign of relaxing the illegal 50-year embargo of socialist Cuba, the hardline has eased somewhat in the field of travel and cultural exchange. Famed Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, 63, has been granted a travel visa. The singer, known for his eloquent lyrics, will play historic Carnegie Hall June 4 and give additional concerts in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. The last time Rodriguez set foot on U.S. soil was in 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still in power. Silvio Rodriguez is co-founder of the Nueva Trova Cubana (New Cuban Song) movement, which reflected the revolutionary enthusiasm of the sixties and continues to be popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Thoughts on the 2010 JUNO Awards

The 39th annual JUNO Awards show, broadcast on CTV April 18, was about the hard sell of corporate pop music, not to mention hair care products, cars and soft drinks. Winners not in the big-money market were relegated to the non-televised gala the previous evening. Among the winners at the televised event, top marks for crassness go to singer Michael Bublé, who thanked Canadian radio for “playing the heck” out of his song, and when presented with the “Pepsi Fan Choice Award,” thanked the soft drink giant with gushing praise before thanking his fans. The predictable finale featured rap-reggae star K’Naan singing his hit song “Wavin’ Flag,” joined by a host of pop stars, including cuddly teen idol du jour Justin Bieber. Highlight of the broadcast: a Newfoundland & Labrador tourism ad that showed apparently “real” people making music in their community and homes and asked “Isn’t it time you got the Top 40 out of your system?”

Singer-activist Lena Horne (1917-2010)

Singer, actress and civil rights activist Lena Horne died May 9. Horne was one of the first African-American performers to tour with an all-white band, and the first to sign a long-term movie contract. Although her roles were often limited to ones that could be cut when the films were distributed in the Jim Crow south, her movie contract stated that she would never play the role of a maid. While entertaining troops during World War II she refused to play to segregated audiences. In the McCarthyite 1950s Horne was blacklisted from Hollywood because of her relationship with friend and mentor Paul Robeson. Undaunted, in the sixties she appeared on the front line of the civil rights movement beside figures like Martin Luther King and Medger Evers. Lena Horne continued to inspire as a performer for decades to come while never letting up in the struggle for racial equality.

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